When it comes to relationships, we all want the same thing: A happy, connected partnership where both people feel loved, respected, and supported. We want to like as well as love our partners, which means we enjoy spending time together talking, and cuddling, as well as cultivating a healthy sexual relationship.
Yet, all too often, once the initial free-ride fades and you find yourself feeling more irritated or doubtful, the mainstream culture encourages you to move on. We transmit a widespread belief that love has a shelf-life and that you can "fall out of love" like falling into a puddle.
The truth is that when the free-ride ends the real work begins. It's not that love has to be hard, but we do need to put effort into the rough spots with an attitude of curiosity and responsibility. This means understanding that "falling out of love" is another way of saying that fear has entered your heart.
On some level, because we've all been hurt by parents, siblings, peers, or strangers, we learn how to shield our hearts from the risk of being hurt again. That's why the statement, "I just don't love him/her anymore" is often a cleverly disguised protection system from the fearful heart intended to convince you to walk away so that you don't render yourself vulnerable to pain.
But running away only lands you in the safe, comfortable, and lonely realm of solitude. So instead of avoiding the difficult, uncomfortable, or less-than-blissful feelings, if you move toward them you'll learn how to say yes to fear, which, paradoxically, also means saying yes to love.
The secret to saying yes to love - even when the honeymoon stage has passed and you feel like you might wring your partner's neck for leaving his dirty socks on the floor again—is to embrace the uncomfortable feelings without judgement while continuing to move toward your partner. It's a yes approach all the way around: You say YES to the irritation (or doubt, numbness, sadness) and you say YES to your partner. The habitual response is either to squash your difficult feelings with denial or self-judgement or to act them out by nagging your partner. The new response that can re-wire your brain toward love and positive feelings is to adopt the yes approach.
Pema Chodron says it poignantly in her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times:
"No one ever tells us to stop running away from fear. We are very rarely told to move closer, to just be there, to become familiar with fear. I once asked the Zen master Kobun Chino Roshi how he related with fear and he said, “I agree. I agree.” But the advice we usually get is to sweeten it up, smooth it over, take a pill, distract ourselves, but by all means, make it go away.
"So the next time you encounter fear, consider yourself lucky. This is where the courage comes in. Usually we think that brave people have no fear. The truth is that they are intimate with fear.”
Being a fear-warrior means that, instead of falling prey to the cultural inclination to make every uncomfortable feeling someone else's fault, you take 100% responsibility for your lack of aliveness, your doubt, your lack of attraction, your confusion, and all forms of pain. And there's no better place to practice than in your intimate relationship, where every shard of stored fear and unshed grief emerges for the purpose of healing your heart and growing your capacity to give and receive love.
No way. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says of the practice of mindfulness, It's the work of a lifetime.